by Nick Engelfried*
As the Trump administration neared the end of its first year in office in 2017, it seemed environmental activists had lost one of the most hard-fought battles in the movement’s history. Thanks to a last-minute manoeuvre by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Congressional Republicans succeeded in passing legislation allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Some of the worst fears of environmental and Indigenous rights groups for what might happen under the administration appeared to be coming true.
However, two and a half years later, no drilling or seismic testing has taken place in the refuge – and there is a very real chance it might never happen. A nationwide grassroots movement led by the Indigenous Gwich’in people has repeatedly delayed the oil leasing process and made the prospect of drilling less attractive to major companies. In the process, the movement has built momentum toward the ultimate goal of permanently protecting the refuge.
In many ways, the modern movement to protect ANWR began in 1988 at an event unprecedented in recent history. For the first time in more than a hundred years, leaders from throughout the Gwich’in Nation converged in a single place – Arctic Village, Alaska – to discuss an existential threat to their way of life. The Reagan administration had recommended opening ANWR’s coastal plain to oil drilling, a move that needed to be approved by Congress under the terms of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Drilling would threaten the Porcupine caribou herd, an essential source of food and cultural sustenance for the Gwich’in people.
For countless millennia, the Gwich’in have relied on the vast numbers of caribou who migrate each year between their calving grounds on the ANWR coastal plain, and the forests and tundra to the south where the herd spends the winter. The relationship between the Gwich’in and the Porcupine herd has often been likened to that between bison and the various Indigenous nations of the Great Plains region.
“In the lower 48, the great buffalo herds that provided for Native peoples were decimated during the genocide of those communities,” said Evon Peter, who helped lead the fight against oil drilling during his time as chief of Arctic Village in the early 2000s. “We Gwich’in are blessed to still have the caribou.”
The traditional territory of the Gwich’in encompasses much of what is now Northeast Alaska, extending east to the Mackenzie River Valley in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The Gwich’in Nation includes more than a dozen separate villages, each with its own tribal government. The imposition of an arbitrary national border by the colonial U.S. and Canadian governments in the 19th century cut their territory in two and made it more difficult for bands to travel back and forth as they once had. However, Gwich’in communities continued to rely on the Porcupine herd, whose calving grounds on the coastal plain are traditionally referred to as the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.
At the time of the 1988 gathering Evon Peter was still a boy, too young to be part of the official proceedings, but along with the rest of the community he participated in group meals and traditional dances organised in conjunction with the event. There was a sense in the air that something momentous was occurring. “It was imperative for us as Gwich’in people to protect the caribou and our way of life,” Peter said. “The seeds of that understanding had been planted very early for me, but in 1988 it became more formulated – not only for me, but for the entire Gwich’in nation.”
By day, inside the community hall, leaders held discussions conducted entirely in the Gwich’in language. Together they arrived at a unanimous consensus: they would present a united front of opposition against any attempt to drill in the Porcupine herd’s calving grounds.
A long fight in Congress
Big Oil’s push to drill in ANWR in the late 1980s was derailed by a combination of grassroots opposition led by the Gwich’in, as well as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which damaged the industry’s reputation and made ANWR drilling politically untenable. However, attempts to open the refuge to oil exploration have resurfaced periodically ever since. In 2005, a series of pro-drilling bills introduced in the Republican-led Congress were narrowly defeated by Democrats. Environmental groups and Gwich’in leaders like Evon Peter rallied the public opposition needed to stop the legislation.
For several years after that, the Sacred Place Where Life Begins seemed safe from immediate harm. In January 2015, the Obama administration formally proposed permanent protections for the coastal plain. However, Congress never acted on the recommendation and in 2017 the ANWR controversy heated up again, though with much less public attention. As Congress fought over the Trump tax bill, Sen. Murkowski unexpectedly inserted a provision calling for oil drilling in ANWR. While the media focused on the larger tax bill debate, the ANWR measure passed without most U.S. residents even realising it had happened.
Suddenly, the Porcupine herd’s calving grounds were in more danger than ever before. To defend the coastal plain, activists knew they would have to adjust their strategy and take their fight beyond Congress to the halls of corporate power.
Divest, sue and organise
On January 31 this year, more than 70 middle and high school students arrived at a Chase Bank in Boise, Idaho with signs calling on Chase to divest from fossil fuels. The students, organising under the banner of Boise Extinction Rebellion Youth, gathered outside in numbers large enough to shut down the block in front of the bank. Although employees prevented the protesters from coming inside, the youth found creative ways to make sure their message was heard.
“We propped open the doors with buckets so they could hear us from inside the bank, and called out Chase for funding the climate crisis,” said Shiva Rajbhandari, one of the organisers. The nonviolent protest eventually caused the bank to shut down for the day.
The Boise action was part of an ongoing, nationwide effort to pressure Chase to stop funding fossil fuels – and it fit right in with the latest phase in the fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The idea is to ensure that even if drilling lease sales are held, no company will want to bid for them or be able to get funding to commence drilling. A major part of the strategy centres on pressuring big banks.
Since 2017, members of the Gwich’in Steering Committee – an organisation founded at the 1988 meeting in Arctic Village – have met with the management of numerous banks and pressured them to rule out involvement in Arctic drilling. So far, more than a dozen banks from around the world have responded with policies that prevent direct investment in such projects. The list includes financial giants like Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Barclays – and, surprisingly, Chase, one of the biggest financiers of the global fossil fuel industry. In late February, the bank that had been targeted by protests like the one in Boise announced it would withhold funding from Arctic oil drilling and certain other fossil fuel projects.
The Chase victory came after years of work by climate activists targeting the bank’s fossil fuel investments. While climate groups are still urging Chase to end its remaining fossil fuel investments, the move against Arctic drilling was a sign grassroots pressure is working – and a welcome development for the Gwich’in. But other financial institutions, like Bank of America, have yet to rule out drilling.
“Bank of America is one of the last big banks that still hasn’t made the pledge not to fund drilling in the Arctic Refuge,” said Christin Swearingen, a volunteer with the Alaska Sierra Club. “So now our focus is on them.” At its annual shareholder meeting in April, Bank of America refused to directly address questions about its Arctic oil policy.
Some banks’ announcements may be partly symbolic, as they likely would not have made direct investments in Arctic drilling anyway. Still, they help send a message to the corporate world that oil exploration in ANWR is socially unacceptable. The strategy climate activists are pursuing is reminiscent of the successful campaign to prevent Alaskan offshore oil development in 2015, which culminated with dramatic “kayaktivist” protests against a Shell Oil drilling rig and icebreaker ship in Pacific Northwest ports. Shell later abandoned plans to drill in the Arctic – ostensibly because early exploration turned up only minimal amounts of oil, but it was hard to escape the impression that public pressure played a decisive role.
If climate activists and the Gwich’in can show exploring for oil in ANWR is just as unacceptable as drilling off the Alaskan coast, they may be able to stop oil projects in their tracks. Meanwhile, groups like the Sierra Club are preparing for a drawn-out legal battle and the threat of lawsuits has significantly delayed the Trump administration’s plans. Soon after the tax bill’s passage, Interior Department officials pledged to hold an oil drilling lease sale by the end of 2019, but as of now no such sale has taken place.
“The administration is trying to shore up the legality of offering lease sales so they can defend the move in court,” Swearingen said. “They know as soon as a sale happens, all the environmental groups involved are going to sue.”
“The best way to have an impact on this issue is to align with Indigenous-led groups, because they know the solutions.”
Nor has there been any seismic testing for oil – a process that could tell companies whether there are in fact any sizable reserves in the coastal plain at all. Last year a company that had planned to conduct such tests, SAExploration, postponed the project amid delays in the Interior Department’s environmental review process. The Gwich’in Steering Committee delivered 100,000 petition signatures to SAExploration opposing seismic testing.
In September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill reversing the drilling provision in the 2017 tax law. While the anti-drilling legislation has no chance of passage in the Senate right now, it is yet another sign of political momentum building to permanently protect the refuge. Ultimately, securing those protections will require a mass public outcry on the scale of those that have stopped drilling in the refuge before.
A mass movement to protect the refuge
In 2019, a small group of young people from communities across North America joined Gwich’in leaders in Washington, D.C. to push for congressional action to protect ANWR. In meetings with members of Congress and their staff, the group shared photos from the refuge taken by Aundre Larrow, a professional photographer who had travelled to the Arctic Refuge that June with four other young adults as part of a trip sponsored by North Face.
“It was a powerful experience,” Larrow said of hearing Gwich’in leaders talk about the refuge as they showed members of Congress his photos on an iPad. “It was about using images to hold up Gwich’in leaders’ message.”
The purpose of the North Face trip, organised by professional skier and environmental activist Kit DesLauriers, was to bring the Gwich’in’s fight to protect ANWR to a larger audience by enlisting young people with expertise in storytelling. In addition to Larrow, the group included Gwich’in Steering Committee member Julia Fisher-Salmon, visual artist Mónica Hernández, Teen Vogue writer Maia Wikler and YouTube comedian Nathan Zed.
Shortly before venturing into ANWR, Wikler travelled from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia to Gwich’in territory to attend and report on the Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit, a first-of-its-kind event focused on the threats of Arctic oil drilling and climate change. “Gwich’in leaders emphasised how drilling would impact their identity, food security and livelihood,” Wikler wrote in her Teen Vogue piece. “Hunters shared their stories of noticing changes in animal behaviour [due to climate change]. Elders offered prayers and encouraged healing in the community.”
While members of Generation Z are, as a whole, highly concerned about climate change, a survey commissioned by North Face found nearly 70 percent are unaware of the threat to ANWR. In part, this can be attributed to the last-minute manner in which the drilling provision was inserted into the 2017 tax bill with little public scrutiny.
For Larrow, one key to reversing this is to help people who will never visit ANWR understand its importance in a visceral way. To this end he created a photography website after visiting the refuge last year. “My goal was for anybody who clicks on the site and sees the pictures to feel a little immersed in that place like I was,” Larrow said.
As more people wake up to the refuge’s plight, the Gwich’in continue to lead the way as they always have. “Sierra Club’s priority is to follow the Gwich’in, because they have the most at stake in this fight,” Swearingen said. “We are just assisting.”
“The best way to have an impact on this issue is to align with Indigenous-led groups, because they know the solutions,” Wikler said. “Get behind and support groups like the Gwich’in Steering Committee – that can mean raising donations or calling members of Congress. There are a multitude of ways to be involved.”
* Nick Engelfried is an environmental writer and activist. This article, which is being used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license, was originally published on Waging Nonviolence, an independent, non-profit media platform dedicated to providing original reporting and expert analysis of social movements around the world.